When somebody we love is rushed, fearful, or stressed, a common thing to say to them is “Breathe”. It may sound a bit weird considering we are breathing all the time but it’s not weird at all; it’s profoundly good advice.
Breathing is easiest when we are “in the moment”. Attending fully to what we are doing at the present time. Not being critical or judgemental about what’s happening or how we or anyone else is doing it; just, simply, doing it. An enhanced version of this which contributes greatly to our wellbeing is when we are so attentive to what we are doing that hardly anything can distract us. This is known as “flow” – a term coined by Mihaly Csikszetmihalyi ¹. If by chance you’re not doing anything at all then having an “in the moment” experience would simply involve being; to observe this state and participate in it fully.
For many people who are living a fast-paced life and struggling with a brain that can’t seem to rest; this practice of mindfulness, which I have described above, seems near impossible. A mere attempt at this “practicing of the present” will reveal that our breathing is more rapid than necessary and, perhaps for some, it’s a little uncomfortable. In addition to this, the more we realise that our breathing is out of sync, the harder it is to get it back to regular. Oh SIGH; why is it that something we’ve been doing since birth suddenly becomes complicated the very moment we need it most?
And boy do we need it! Breathing provides us with approximately 90% of our energy thus re-vitalising us in a big way. Yet apparently, through the way we live and our ignorance to the potential of breathing, we don’t use it to it’s full potential. What a shame; to see a free, renewable, human energy source sitting there under-utilised. How can this be?
Many reasons, but here is one simple take on it. Often when we are stressed or anxious we are blaming ourselves or thinking very hard about how to “fix it”. Alternatively we might be thinking about how to “flee it” as the physical symptoms are certainly not pleasant. So whether it’s fight or flight, this is what keeps the brain on high alert, making us exert more energy than what is appropriate for the situation. And this is when we unconsciously breathe faster. So when the advice from a loved one comes in to “breathe” they are simply meaning “breathe slower”.
So what can we do? How can we change our programming for the benefit of our physical and mental well-being? Firstly, AWARENESS is an almighty step. Awareness that we need to slow down our breathing and to make it deeper, quieter and more regular. Secondly, PRACTICE. Practice deep breathing a few times a day to remind your brain that it doesn’t need to be on high alert all the time. The health benefits are endless ² and the mind benefits mind-blowing.
Here’s an acronym I created for BREATHE that might guide you:
B: Be (ie: cease doing). This practice is not to be multi-tasked; all devices off.
R: Resist the temptation to fidget or give up. It’s a new skill and you’ll need to focus.
E: Enter in to the present moment and establish a pattern for your breath.
A: Attune to that simple sensation of the breath going in and the breath going out.
T: Think of nothing but the here and now. Breath going in, breath going out.
H: Hang out and sit there a while. Start with 3 mins and extend it as it gets easier.
E: End it when you planned to. Small bits of practice at a time, don’t over-do it.
Another interesting and practical read associated with this topic:
Sarah Piper is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Sarah by clicking here.